A happy-go-lucky dragon with a yellow head who talks with a magic flute. Diminutive sea monsters frolicking with a pair of young boys. A world where lifesize hats run things. And presidents in a bar, laughing it up with Saddam Hussein and Barbara Walters. These are the worlds which have been the mainstay of Sid and Marty Krofft for over 50 years, and for which they are being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Feb.13.
The Kroffts’ craft developed out of several decades of marionette work, including their hugely successful “Les Poupées de Paris,” the first “adults only” puppet show, featuring naked marionettes, which opened in 1962. Its success drew the attention of Six Flags, who brought the brothers onboard as creative heads to install shows at all of their amusement parks.
To produce the many costumes, puppets and props used at the Six Flags parks, the Kroffts built what would be their home base for many years for their many television series, a “creative factory” in North Hollywood. “We had every department,” says Sid Krofft. During its peak, that included nearly 200 employees.
Not long after, Hanna-Barbera’s TV animation studio decided to take a step into live action, featuring life-sized puppets/suited characters, for a new series, “The Banana Splits.” “They had a show they were doing for NBC and Kellogg’s, and they didn’t know how to do it,” says Marty Krofft. The Kroffts built the costumes for the four main characters, based on sketches from Hanna-Barbera’s artists, then hired their own team to refine and develop them, and eventually build them.
After the costumes were delivered, Sid recalls Larry White, then-head of programming at NBC telling them, “You guys are really insane! Why don’t you come up with your own idea for a show?” Centered on a friendly, human sized dragon named Luther, who had first been made as an entry in the HemisFair 1968 World’s Fair in San Antonio, “H.R. Pufnstuf” was born.
Luther was designed by Tony Urbano and modified by the Krofft team at the factory, but the majority of the Kroffts’ characters were designed under the supervision of creative head Nicky Nadeau, whom Sid Krofft met one evening after a show at the Roxy Theatre in New York. Nadeau, a ballet dancer at the time, impressed the puppet master with a book of his art and, upon their remeeting in L.A. in the early ’60s, the Kroffts hired him as a designer for “Les Poupées.”
“Nicky played a huge part in the success of Sid and Marty Krofft,” Sid says. “He understood us — we loved color. Everything bright. He created, with us, the Krofft look.”
Nadeau had about 10 artists working under him. “We would have an idea in mind of what we were looking for,” Marty explains, “but didn’t really know how they should look. So we’d give them an all an assignment, and they’d each take their shot at it, and then Sid and I would pick which we liked best.”
The figures and puppets were then fabricated by Rolf Roediger, who ran the Kroffts’ shop. “Nicky brought Rolf to us,” Sid recalls. “He and Nicky would work closely, because Rolf understood what the person inside the suit was going to need.”
The figures’ human — or human-like — counterparts in the Kroffts’ shows were always carefully chosen from a wide array of actors. H.R. Pufnstuf’s nemesis Witchiepoo, for example, was played by Billie Hayes, a character actress who first started working in clubs at the age of 9. Hayes had been performing alongside Betty Grable and Peter Walker in “Hello Dolly” in Las Vegas, and Walker eventually suggested her to his friend, Sid. “Sid told him he was looking for somebody to do this crazy musical witch,’” Hayes says. “So Peter told him, ‘Hey, I know just who you’re looking for.’”
The actress came for an audition, beating out Penny Marshall, who had also read. Says Marty, “She walked in, got up on the table, and swallowed the table. She was Witchiepoo.”
Actors like Hayes and Johnny Whitaker, who performed in the Kroffts’ “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” found themselves working opposite actors in Nadeau’s and Roediger’s quirky costumes, both big and small. Honduran puppeteer Roberto Gamonet portrayed H.R. Pufnstuf during the series’ brief run, as well as in the Kroffts’ 1970 feature film, but was replaced by respected veteran puppeteer Van Snowden in any later appearances, and passed away not long after.
Fitting into medium-sized costumes was the petite Sharon Baird, a former Mouseketeer who portrayed characters like Judy Frog (modeled after Judy Garland) and Shirley Pufnstuf (Puf’s sister) in “H.R. Pufnstuf,” Big Daddy in “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” and countless others. Baird was able to act, sing, dance and do physical comedy. “Whatever we did,” says Sid, “she was always in there.”
Krofft shows were always populated by countless small creatures, too — all of whom interacted with each other and with the human characters with a natural ease. And inside those character costumes were little people actors. “I probably hired more little people than anybody in town,” Marty says. Sid adds that 35 little people worked on “H.R. Pufnstuf,” brought from all over the world.
Chief among them was the legendary Billy Barty, who started acting at the age of four in 1928, and remained busy in films and television most of his life. “He was real show business,” Sid says of Barty. “He and I both worked in burlesque, and he was the first one that we reached out to — because he knew where all the little people were in the world, and reached out to them all.”
Another little person actor who appeared in several early Krofft series was Joy Campbell, who, while still in high school and with no acting experience, answered an ad the Kroffts had placed in the Little People of America newsletter. They eventually brought her from her family’s rural home in Esparto, near Sacramento, to the factory, fitted for a costume and gave her a job. “The ad said, ‘Sid & Marty Krofft Productions looking for little people — Must be agile,’” she remembers.
There were other more seasoned little people co-stars, including Felix Silla, whom the Kroffts had used for some of their stage shows (and who had just made a name in television playing Cousin Itt on “The Addams Family”); Angelo Rossitto, who had appeared in Tod Browning’s landmark “Freaks” in 1932 and in several series before working with the Kroffts; and the more elderly Andy Ratoucheff, with his Russian accent and GQ manner of dress, was mostly known to those on the “H.R. Pufnstuf” set and Paramount lot for his bible-thumping, fire and brimstone speeches to anyone who would briefly listen.
To pull it all together was producer Si Rose, whom Marty brought in “because we didn’t really know how to do this,” he notes. Rose set about hiring seasoned directors who would cement the series’ visual looks. “H.R. Pufnstuf,” the only Krofft series shot on film, was helmed by Hollingsworth “Holly” Morse. “He was a fabulous director. He would be right there, in your face, doing whatever he needed to do to get across what he wanted,” says Hayes.
“The Bugaloos” and “Lidsville” were both directed by Tony Charmoli, a well-known choreographer friend of Sid’s. “He really created a look for those shows,” Sid says. “And he was the first to use chroma key with us.” This allowed for basic, unassuming visual effects, which Charmoli would direct from a truck outside the soundstage, dashing in to make directorial adjustments, before dashing back out again. “He was a dancer, so he ran everywhere,” Campbell notes.
The cast would typically rehearse on set — without head pieces on, to allow the human actors to see the puppeteer actors’ reactions. Those puppeteers, though, were not the ones reading the lines. “We’d study the scripts the night before, of course, but the lines were read on set by the script girl,” Campbell says. Script supervisor Dell Ross, who worked on “H.R. Pufnstuf,” “The Bugaloos” and “Lidsville” with the Kroffts would sit next to the director and read each character’s lines, changing her voice for each character, so everyone would know who was who, and the lines would be dubbed in post later by the actors.
“Having the script girl do it wasn’t the best,” Marty says, “because a script person isn’t an actor, and you end up married to the movements the little person is doing, based on how Dell read it. But then the voice person might read it differently, with more emotion or excitement. But we were only getting $54,000 an episode, so we couldn’t afford to have the voice actors there on set.”
The actors were present, though, for “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” Whitaker recalls. “They were in a semi-isolated booth elsewhere in the soundstage, watching monitors, and their reading was piped onto the set via a sound system. And the puppet actors would hear them and move, knowing the lines, to try to hit the same pacing and mouth movement. And then we could develop real reactions to them, even though we’d never see those faces, once their head pieces were on for takes.”
The puppeteers inside would move the mouth of their character, typically using one arm to place their hand inside the mouth part of the mask (producing a “dead arm” on the costume), while the other was doing hand movements. Occasionally a headpiece had straps connected to the mouth, which a puppeteer would operate using his or her jaw.
In more recent iterations of Krofft shows, such as a 2016 update to “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters” for Amazon, the mouth is operated via animatronics. “On our show, the puppeteer operating the mouth also read the lines, off to the side of the set,” says David Arquette, who played Capt. Barnabus. “And they could give some guidance to the actor, ‘OK on this part, I’m going to be confused, so show that in your body, as well.’”
The puppeteers could also ad lib, something which Arquette loved: “It’s not so scripted that there’s no freedom to expand. And having the live voice actors there really helped.”
A similar setup existed for the Kroffts’ popular “D.C. Follies” in the late ’80s. That show featured full size hand puppets of current politicians and stars, interacting with guest stars or host bartender Fred Willard. “Around that time, we were hoping to buy The Hollywood Athletic Club, to build at theater for ‘Les Pouppée de Paris,’” Sid says, “and have a bar populated by puppets.” The deal fell through, but the Kroffts made use of the bar idea.
The puppets were hand-sculpted in bolster foam by master puppetmaker Randy Simper, based on caricatures drawn by Robert Myers, cartoon artist for The Daily News. The show kept Simper and his team of three fabricators busy, turning out five new puppets, fully-costumed, each week. “There would be a lot of come-and-go politicians and celebrities, whoever was in the news, before they weren’t in the news,” he says.
Master puppeteers like Snowden would operate the puppets, with typically two puppeteers per character, contorting themselves any way they had to on the set, “hiding what they had to hide and showing what they had to show,” Simper says. “These guys were really fit and really practiced, and all had great senses of humor.” Such voice actors and impersonators as Maurice LaMarche, Louise DuArt and John Roarke would sit at a table on set, viewing monitors and speaking the characters’ parts. The puppeteers watched their own monitors to keep their puppets in position, while also performing the lines.
“The Kroffts’ shows work because there’s still a connection to Vaudeville there,” Arquette says. “And that allows you to play a character bigger — to really take chances and have fun, use physical comedy and sight gags and some old school surprises. Working with Sid and Marty Krofft is like taking a master class in producing and creative. They’ve been doing it so long, they know what they’re doing so well.”